D-Lib Magazine
January 2002

Volume 8 Number 1

ISSN 1082-9873

Re-inventing the Wheel? Standards, Interoperability and Digital Cultural Content


Tony Gill
Research Libraries Group

Paul Miller
Interoperability Focus

Red Line



Around the world, there are unprecedented funding opportunities for creating digital cultural content. However, to date there has been relatively little harmonization of the standards frameworks used in the creation, management and preservation of this content, resulting in duplication of effort, higher costs and diminished interoperability of the end results. An international group of stakeholders are hoping to address this situation by agreeing on a common set of core values and seeking to leverage existing synergies wherever possible.

Digital Rockpools beside Digital Oceans

It will probably not come as a huge surprise to readers of this publication that there are a number of compelling arguments in favor of using digital communication networks to provide access to information, regardless of whether the information was "born digital", or represents digitally-reformatted surrogates of extant analog materials.

Chief amongst the advantages of digital information over analog physical counterparts are the comparatively low costs of creation, storage, management and preservation, the theoretical absence of limits on the number of concurrent users, the relative ease with which digital materials can be re-used or re-purposed and, since the Internet is available to a small but growing percentage of the world's populace1 24 x 7, a significant reduction in spatio-temporal barriers to access.

In the light of these obvious benefits, individuals and organizations at local, regional, national and international levels are all busy creating vast quantities of digital information, adding to the global "information explosion"—a recent study by UC Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems asserts that the world's total information output for one year, 93% of which is already stored digitally, would require 1.5 billion gigabytes of storage2.

A small but significant part of this information explosion is digital cultural content—digital resources that help to capture our cultural memory and preserve the human record for future generations. Digital cultural content is a broad and intentionally ill-defined concept that includes digital multimedia surrogates for cultural artifacts of the kind typically held in the collections of the world's museums, libraries and archives, and the associated descriptive and contextual information associated with them. It can also include "born digital" resources; in fact, pretty much any digital object that is created and maintained to help document and explain the human experience can be considered digital cultural content.

In terms of quantity, digital cultural content represents a mere rock pool at the shoreline of the vast and rapidly expanding networked information ocean, but qualitatively it is an interesting microcosm that is attracting a lot of interest from multiple constituencies, for a number of reasons. Although there are inevitably exceptions to all of these assertions, much digital cultural content:

  • Originates from trusted and respected non-partisan information providers such as museums, libraries and archives;
  • Is of high quality;
  • Has an intrinsically high value for education and research, helping to support structured curricula, lifelong learners and scholars;
  • Is relatively stable over time (meaning that there is a potentially unlimited return on the initial investment);
  • Is either politically benign or non-controversial;
  • Helps to promote a sense of cultural identity at local, regional and national levels;
  • Is attractive and interesting to multiple audiences.

Whatever the reasons, there is a high demand for digital cultural content, and a corresponding proliferation of both cultural digitization initiatives and funding opportunities for cultural digitization initiatives. For example:

In the UK today, there are at least two significant sources of public sector funding for digital cultural content creation initiatives: The Joint Information Systems Committee3 of the Further and Higher Education Funding Councils, which has funded content creation projects in the past such as the JISC Image Digitisation Initiative4 and the Digitisation area5 of the Electronic Libraries Programme, and the New Opportunities Fund Digitise6 program, which has recently allocated £50 million (Just over $72 million) raised through the sale of National Lottery tickets to more than 150 digitization projects7. This upward trend in the provision of public funding for digital cultural content creation looks set to continue if the UK Government's vision for Culture Online8 is realized. There is also some limited private foundation support for cultural content digitization in the UK.

In Canada, the Federal Government's Canadian Digital Cultural Content Initiative9 is spending CAN$ 75 million (almost US$ 48 million) on content digitization programs in libraries, museums, and archives, and CAN$ 108 million (almost US$ 69 million) has been allocated10 under the Tomorrow Starts Today banner.

In the United States, the funding environment for digital content creation is more fragmented, with state and federal agencies (such as the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation) along with a plethora of private foundations offering funding programs that include a digital cultural content creation component.

These funding programs are by no means exceptional—similar programs are underway in many other countries throughout the world.

Interoperability, Consistency and Standards

Naturally, the agencies providing this generous financial support for digital content creation are looking to maximize the value of their grant awards, by stipulating that the resultant digital cultural content should be as widely useful, portable and long-lasting as possible. These combined goals of wide usefulness (which encompasses the grammatically-dubious notion of "re-usefulness"), portability (across networks, systems and organizations) and longevity (portability across time) of digital cultural resources are encapsulated by the single concept of interoperability.

The key to the interoperability of digital cultural content, and in fact any digital collection, is consistency—digital collections are created, manipulated, stored, searched and displayed by computers, and computers are inherently algorithmic devices: When digital collections are highly consistent, they can be processed quickly and cheaply, using relatively simple algorithms, with a high degree of reliability and robustness. Conversely, inconsistent digital collections require either individual human attention, or more complex algorithms to correctly handle all of the possible conditions that may be encountered; in either case, the result is more complex, costly and unreliable systems and processes.

The consistency that gives rise to interoperability in digital cultural collections is achieved through the use of standards—codified rules and guidelines for the creation, description and management of digital resources. Fortunately, the critical importance of standards to the success of cultural digitization initiatives is widely recognized, as evidenced by the plethora of project or initiative specific standards frameworks already in existence (this "embarrassment of riches" has not gone unnoticed in cultural content creation circles, where it is often ironically remarked "the best thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from"!).

Unfortunately there is still a tendency for digital cultural content creators to either develop completely new standards frameworks from scratch, or to adopt a "mix and match" approach, cannibalizing portions from existing domains, national and international standards, and "adapting" them for specific applications (in some cases, the adaptations are so extensive that the actual level of compliance to cited standards amounts to little more than lip service). Although local or adapted standards are certainly better than no standards, this approach can significantly diminish the value of a digital cultural collection by limiting its interoperability with the wider networked world.

Even a cursory review of contemporary cultural content creation initiatives suggests that there are a great deal more similarities between the goals of the various creators than there are differences, so why is it so difficult to agree upon a common framework of standards? Is there a perception that standards are typically developed by committees of theoreticians, rather than practitioners, and are therefore not sufficiently practical in "real-world" scenarios? Is it because standards development is a slow process by virtue of the need to build community consensus, and that they are therefore always a few steps behind the need of implementers? Is it because standards are often designed to be inherently flexible, in order to promote their adoption, but at the expense of interoperability? Or is it simply the parochial impulse to uniquely brand a project and assert sovereignty over the standards that govern the contents' creation?

Whatever the reason, it is abundantly clear that there is a massive duplication of effort taking place in the realm of standards for digital cultural content creation—very similar wheels are continually being reinvented, and the sub-optimal nature of this situation is painfully obvious to anyone involved in developing these frameworks. If we could only agree on some common ground…

In Search of Common Ground

It was precisely these concerns that led UKOLN, CIMI, and Resource to jointly plan and host the International Seminar on National Digital Cultural Content Creation Strategies, at the Tate Modern's spectacular new Bankside building in London during July 2001. A full listing of the invitees, and the participants that attended at short notice from three continents, can be found on the web pages for the meeting11, and a concise report12 of the meeting by the organizers was published in October 2001.

The aims of this meeting were to examine the lessons to be learned from established digital cultural content creation programs, and identify the areas where greater synergies between programs could be usefully and practically leveraged. For example, greater awareness of standards frameworks for digital cultural content creation worldwide, combined with willingness to share and harmonize standards frameworks where appropriate, could result in both reduced workloads and associated costs for digitization initiatives, and more globally interoperable (useful, portable, long-lasting) digital cultural resources—surely a perfect example of the "win-win scenario".

The first deliverables from the group will include a series of position statements that reflect the shared beliefs and values of the group's members. At the time of writing, these position statements are in the final draft stages:

  • A position statement on the relevance and value of digital cultural content to society;
  • A position statement on the importance of addressing the preservation of digital cultural content;
  • A position statement on the relationship between intellectual property rights (IPR) and digital cultural content.

Ratification of the position statements by the group, and agreement on practical next steps in leveraging synergies to promote interoperability and reduce costs in the creation of digital cultural content, will take place at the second meeting of the group, to be hosted in March 2002 by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in Washington, D.C.

The Washington meeting will also receive and discuss a number of focussed pieces of policy research, commissioned following the London event, and consider the most effective form in which the work of this currently informal group might best be carried forward.

Keeping Informed

Notice of public deliverables from this group will be given via e-mail to various community mailing lists. Those who are interested in receiving notification of all such deliverables are invited to join the public mailing list, interoperability, hosted by the UK JISCmail service.

To join this list, send a message to

with the body of the message reading

join interoperability Your_Firstname Your_Lastname


join interoperability Paul Miller

Notes and References

1. According to the Digital Divide Network website at <>, there are currently estimated to be 429 million people with access to the Internet globally, representing 6% of the World's total population. Of course, the massively uneven distribution of this privileged 6% across the globe is the reason that organizations like the Digital Divide Network exist.

2. Lyman, P. and Varian, H.R., "How Much Information", 2000. Retrieved from <> on 13 December 2001.

3. Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC): <>.

4. JISC Image Digitisation Initiative: <>.

5. eLib Digitisation Projects: <>.

6. NOF-digitise: <>.

7. Miller, P. and Criddle, S., "A True New Opportunity for Cultural Content Digitisation in the UK", Cultivate Interactive, Issue 5, October 2001: <>.

8. Culture Online: <>.

9. Canadian Digital Cultural Content Initiative (CDCCI): <>.

10. Tomorrow Starts Today Fact Sheet VIII: Internet Content Strategy And New Media: <>.

11. International Seminar on National Digital Cultural Content Creation Strategies: <>.

12. Miller, P., Dawson, D. & Perkins, J., "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants", Cultivate Interactive, Issue 5, 1 October 2001: <>.

Copyright 2002 Tony Gill and Paul Miller

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DOI: 10.1045/january2002-gill